Guide to a cheaper fix for schools

By Kathreen Harrison | Feb 04, 2016

Roland Barth, leading writer on education, suggests that a key ingredient to improving schools is regular, school-focused, honest, mutually respectful conversation among the adults who work in them.

Compared to the millions of dollars we have spent in this country in the past decade on much more complicated "fixes" (and that have seen dubious success -- and that’s being generous), creating structures in schools for regular conversations among adults seems to me to be a cheap fix that we should try.

The key lies in creating structures that allow for thoughtful conversation. To begin with, the rush factor must be eradicated. Too often, when educators gather together to talk, real thought is constrained by a ticking clock. Who can listen, share, consider, and respond to questions that matter deeply in a 45-minute span of time? Human nature and communication just don’t work that way.

Conversation must take place regularly to enable a serious exchange of ideas. Participants need to get to know each other’s intellects and conversational style, create norms of communication and develop mutual respect if depth is to be reached. Therefore, basic structural needs include weekly conversations of at least 90 minutes so that there is time to tackle issues of substance in a collegial fashion.

A central puzzle for each group would be to figure out how to get everyone to accept these conversations and see them as key ingredients in school improvement. Most groups would benefit from developing an agenda ahead of every meeting. Input from all into the creation of the agenda would be a crucial ingredient, with all voices weighted equally. I think that if such conversations occur regularly, and on a deep level, adults in schools will rapidly come to value them and school improvement will follow.

To be clear, I am not talking in this column about special committees that form for specific short-term purposes. I am talking about creating structures that are an integral part of the school, so that the professionals who work there can identify and address the central issues in their particular schools. Each school in this country is different, and neither Washington, D.C., nor Augusta can possibly have the insider knowledge necessary in order to develop and track what is needed to help all students.

Administrators and committees will start working on schedules for next year very soon. If we are to try this"‘cheap fix," regular, solid blocks of time for these conversations will need to be prioritized in the schedule. I urge each school in Maine that is looking for better student outcomes to put structures in place that will elicit deep thinking from the adults who work in them. The experts already work in the schools – we just need access to their expertise.

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